The journey up and down the A9 was a common feature of my childhood. Sat in the back of the car, my headphones in with a suitable mixtape, watching the scenery change and counting the number of buzzards or rabbits I’d see. One year a Red Kite was spotted at the Tore roundabout. And so every year after the prospect of seeing one – just one – was present. The straining of my neck to peer out the window to see the forked tail flying above the car or in the opposite direction to our travel. Fast forward to the present and a spell living on the Black Isle, no longer a solitary glimpse, but a regular sighting. At the tool store, beside the A9 – at the Tore roundabout.
Every glimpse as magical as the first.
Conservation of the Red Kite Milvus milvus
The Red Kite is a majestic bird of prey which suffered a major historical decline and has been part of one of the longest conservation projects worldwide. Through reintroduction programmes and monitoring its numbers have successfully increased in the UK but it remains on the Amber Status List due to its past decline, when it was faced with extinction. In the early 20th century the Red Kite population was a target for egg collectors due to its rarity, and a committee was formed in 1903, with the RSPB becoming involved in 1905. Since then there has been continued action to recover the population. During the 1950s and 60s nest protection projects reduced the threat from egg collectors. However in the 1980s the Red Kite was one of three globally threatened species so conservation efforts became a priority.
With a limited habitat within Wales, along with persistent human threats, it was unlikely that the species would expand its range outwith Wales. This prompted the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage in 1986 to discuss the possible reintroduction of Red Kite to England and Scotland. Between 1989 and 1994 a total of 93 birds, brought over from Sweden and Spain, were released at a site in North Scotland and one in Buckinghamshire, England, with the first successful breeding from both sites being recorded in 1992. These successes prompted the continuation of the programme, releasing in new sites to help expand the breeding population. There are still threats to the long-term survival of the Red Kite, mainly from illegal poison left out for predators and secondary poisonings aimed at rodents. In June 2014 16 Red Kites and 6 buzzards were found dead throughout Ross-shire in the Scottish Highlands, the cause being the digestion of an illegal poisonous substance. This highlights the importance of species conservation, and shows that human actions can still greatly threaten their numbers and existence.
Why is the conservation of the Red Kite important? The Red Kite is a striking bird of prey which is very distinct in character with its forked tail, 2m wingspan and reddish-brown colouring. Historically it was highly valued in medieval times – as a scavenger it ate the litter from the streets, and therefore the punishment for killing one was death. Along with being a scavenger, it plays its role in the food chain by keeping populations of smaller mammals in check. Conservation projects aimed at managing habitat for Red Kites will, as with most species conservation, have wider benefits for other species.
Ethics plays its part in the importance of conservation as often human activity has been the cause of declines in species and habitats. From being a revered species in medieval times, humans came to view them as vermin resulting in decline, then its rarity resulted in it being a target for egg collectors and bounty hunters. We created the decline, to the point of near extinction, so it is only right we try and reverse it. And as seen on the Black Isle, they are still under threat today, underpinning that conservation should be carried on into the future and that contingency plans are in place, for both national and international survival. Finally, as is often the case today, economic reasoning is never far away. Red Kites have become a popular tourist attraction and are now being used as a “marketing tool” which can bring income into local communities. Viewing sites have been established by the RSPB and Forestry Commission at various locations throughout the country. Not only can this bring money into a community, it also enables the public to experience, be educated and be informed of the importance of species conservation.
Last week I took part in a Walking and Drawing session, which focussed on a local burn. The artist leading the session picked out some Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) for me to draw. This plant is prolific along the burn and is an invasive non-native species, subject to many an eradication programme. It likes growing along river banks and spreads extremely fast with exploding seed heads! It’s an apt plant to be picked out for me as I spent a summer co-leading volunteers in the removal of this invasive species, pretty much for 3 months at least 3/4 days a week – aah, the memories 😉
Having spent a summer so closely immersed in this plants removal I thought I was quite familiar with it and its structure. But while sitting drawing this plant I noticed the structure of the flower was far more delicate than I had ever noticed.
The actual flower is attached via a small, thin hanging stalk and looks extremely delicate. The seed pods are just beginning to develop also and are on a similar stalk (which I had noticed previously). Once they are “ripe” just a simple touch of the pod will cause it to burst open dispersing seeds all round. The plant can grow to over 6 feet high, comprising a strong stem that is in contrast to the delicate feeling of the flowers. The main point of this observation is the fact I never noticed this small detail of the flower until I sat down to sketch it. A nice reminder that even although we are looking, we are not seeing.
For the second morning in a row,
two crows are dancing,
in the rowan tree.
On branches too thin to hold,
their omens and secrets.
Eating the berries, orange tinged and plenty –
“It’s going to be a hard winter, aye.”
Discarded berries on the ground below.
The blackbird rushes over –
“I want some of that too!”
As a crow looks down, ruffling a feather.
(18th August 2015)